This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 30, 1997

April 30, 1997 - Light Rail

Last weekend, my wife and I took our kids to the Children's Book Fair in Denver. There we actually shook hands with the Cat in the Hat, waved to Winnie the Pooh, and caught a glimpse of Miss Frizzle.

As part of the adventure, we drove up to about Broadway and I-25, parked the car (for free), and rode the new light rail into town. Perry, our three year old, is a big time train enthusiast. He thought this was terrific.

(Incidentally, before we got to the station, Perry asked what kind of train this was. I told him, "Light rail." "White whale?" he said. "Is it Moby Dick?" We'd checked out the movie from the library just the night before. Pretty literate for a three year old, eh?)

Traveling by light rail was great. I found myself wishing that I could take it from Castle Rock into Denver. That way, I could avoid I-25, which grows always more congested.

But here's something that baffles me. I have yet to hear of a mass transit system that makes money. (Although the devil-may-care collection system of Denver's light rail may have something to do with that, at least here.)

But you really can't say that light rail is more expensive than the alternative.

When you add up the costs for all the new cars, and all the new guard rails, and all the new lanes, and all the new intersections, it seems to me the cost for loads of individual cars has to be much higher, both individually (what you shell out of your own pocket for the vehicle and its upkeep) and collectively (in the way of local, state, and federal taxes to build and maintain roads).

But then, there are some people who pay $35 a month or more for cable TV, or $19.95 a month for America Online, who object to me about the $40 or so they pay in taxes PER YEAR for the library. Yet compared to both cable and America Online, our product is both much cheaper and of higher quality.

It doesn't take much figuring to make a solid business case that libraries save everybody money, whether you use them for entertainment or information or both. But I've never seen such figures for light rail.

Of course, people who argue against public transportation say that it's inconvenient. I drive a car, they say, because I like to go when I want to go, not when the train pulls up. Yet anyone who has ever had to drive into Denver or back during peak traffic times (and this is more often than not, it seems to me), has to admit that looking at all those thousands of cars, each belching poisonous gases and noise, each traveling precisely the same road for 20 or 30 miles, each with just one passenger, doesn't make much sense.

And how do you argue convenience when you're sitting in traffic jam?

I don't want to see another argument about the free market versus the public good. In that sort of discussion, everybody has made up his or her mind ahead of time, and no one learns anything. But I WOULD like to see a thoughtful cost-analysis of the way Americans move people around from home to work and places in between.

I bet both sides would be in for a whale of a surprise.

Wednesday, April 23, 1997

April 23, 1997 - Highlands Ranch Quest for Community

I attended a meeting last week of the Highlands Ranch Development Review Committee. Featured were James Van Hemert of the Douglas County Planning Department, and several people speaking for the Mission Viejo Company, including their consultants, RNL.

My interest in the meeting was that it addressed planning issues around Mission Viejo's "Civic Center" (also called a Town Center). Mission Viejo has pledged 3.4 acres of land for a new Highlands Ranch Library, although it will be at least two or three years before the library can save up enough money to build it.

The library district is grateful for Mission's important donation, enabling us to respond far more rapidly to tax-payer needs than would otherwise be the case. But we were also curious to see how our new library might fit in to Mission's plan for the larger area.

The meeting — ably and sensitively facilitated by Gordon Von Stroh — was fascinating. Here's my take on some of the issues:

Highlands Ranch residents have a profound longing for community. Some months ago, twelve thousand copies of a survey (put together by a subcommittee of the development review committee) were distributed to area residents. In essence, the survey asked what Ranchers wanted to see at the civic center. Over 2,600 responses were turned in. Not only did residents have (obviously) strong feelings about the subject, they also tended to agree with each other.

What people wanted, as the RNL consultant noted that people often say they want, was something like the downtown of the movie "Back to the Future." They wanted a pedestrian-friendly square around some well-respected civic structure or structures. They wanted tree-lined streets. They wanted lots of little businesses as opposed to a few (or many) big boxes. They wanted a place to stroll around with their kids, grab a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone. They wanted a social gathering place where they could hear live music.

I have to admit that part of me wondered: if this was what people really were looking for, why on earth had they moved to Highlands Ranch? Unless they had been kidnapped and driven blindfolded to their homes, it should be perfectly obvious that shady streets are some two or three decades away.

It is also clear that the basic ruler of the development is hardly the human stride; it is the length and width of the automobile. You can see this from the facade of all the houses (two or three car garages), the narrow sidewalks, and major intersections so wide you need a car to cross them before the light changes.

But in the presentation by RNL, it was clear that some different ideas, loosely called "New Urbanism," were beginning to work their way into community planning.

Mission Viejo had directed RNL to base their proposal on the documented values of Mission residents. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many of the folks sitting in that evening, RNL did a pretty good job.

The street plan followed a modified grid (adjusted for topography). There was an attempt to scale the downtown area to human dimensions, to create a space where you could leave your car behind and actually talk to your neighbors.

James Van Hemert spoke very clearly and intelligently about how the planning department is seeking to encourage the implementation of such people-oriented places.

Taken together, these are very encouraging trends. People thought they were talking about Highlands Ranch and Mission Viejo. In fact, their concerns and comments are about some of the core issues of American culture.

There are two ways to look at Highlands Ranch. One is that it is an exactly backwards city planning effort. A second way is that in fact Mission Viejo has achieved something both remarkable and magnificent.

By "exactly backwards," I mean that historically, most larger cities coalesce around an economic and civic core, then radiate outwards. Highlands Ranch is a patchwork of developments across broad tracts of land. Almost 20 years later, it's looking for the center, its heart. This is much like being born an adolescent, then trying to retrospectively create a childhood. But childhood is where your real values are formed.

By "magnificent," I mean that Mission Viejo is about to pull off the creation of a city of between 50,000 and 100,000 in just two decades.

If you look at Mission as "founders" (as they will be known by history) as opposed to "developers" (a term with mixed connotations in Douglas County at the end of the 20th century), you'll see that they have been remarkably successful. Many Douglas County developments have not been, or at least not so consistently.

While Highlands Ranch still doesn't seem to me to have the civic infrastructure of a true community — the civic groups, the local businesses, the history of social cooperation both large and small — it is nonetheless true that the thirst for such things is deep and genuine among current residents. And they're showing up to talk, and I hope, to do, something about it.

I believe that together — developer and home owner, consultants and civic leaders — they will build a true community, of unusual scale and scope, in an astonishingly short period of time.

To that community, the Douglas Public Library District is proud to contribute.

Wednesday, April 16, 1997

April 16, 1997 - Annual Report

This is National Library Week. It's as good a time as any to pass on to Douglas County taxpayers the sort of statistics we gathered for our 1996 annual report to Colorado's State library.

Library patrons. We currently have 83,781 registered borrowers living in Douglas County. That's almost 70% of our 123,000 residents. We have another 5,459 people who live outside the county.

Revenue. Our income for 1996 was $3,105,271 from our local tax base. We got various gifts and donations (primarily the Philip S. Miller bequest) of $124,553. Other income (interest on investments, fines, fees, payments for lost or damaged books, etc.) was $225,146.

Expenditures. As with most libraries, our largest expenditure was staff (about $1.3 million). Our second largest single expense -- just under half a million dollars -- went to the purchase of library materials. All other operating costs -- computers, telephone, postage, utilities, supplies, etc., came to $633,924.

We spent about $112,000 on various capital items (book shelves, furniture, etc.). The remainder was banked for long term capital needs.
Materials. At the end of the year, we had 227,862 books; 10,908 audiotapes, 251 compact discs, and 77 CD-ROMS (look for big jumps in these last two in 1997).

Hours. If you add up all the hours that all our locations are open, we provide 284 hours of library service each week.

Group presentations in 1996 (story hours and library-sponsored programs): 1,824. Program attendance: 30,076.

Books/materials borrowed from other libraries for our patrons: 3,730. Books/materials loaned to other libraries for their patrons: 1,423.
Total circulation (checkouts) for the year: 1,191,881.

Number of challenges to library materials (requests to remove materials from our collection, or to shelve in a less accessible area): 4. The titles were Daddy's Roommate, Men's Journal (a magazine with a suggestive cover one month), Favorite Scary Stories of American Children, and The Boy Who Drew Cats. By contrast, we added about 30,000 items that year.

The annual report also asked about any ballot issues. We reported that a mill levy increase did pass (by 51.5%). Campaign expenditures totaled $2,800 in cash, and $1,500 in in-kind donations.

How does all this compare with other Colorado libraries? Compared to the 18 Colorado public libraries with budgets greater than $675,000, we rank 8th in terms of overall circulation activity (after Denver, Colorado Springs, Jeffco, Aurora, Arapahoe, Boulder, and Fort Collins). On a per capita basis, however, we rank 5th (after Denver, Boulder, Arapahoe, and Longmont).

Other rankings: full-time equivalent staff per 1,000 people served, 11th; materials budget per capita, 6th; and volumes held per capita, 14th (our population is growing faster than our collection, which we're hoping to address by the year 2000).

And that's the year in review.

Wednesday, April 9, 1997

April 9, 1997 - Arbor Day

Shortly after I got out of college but before I found gainful employment, I began to have the most vivid dreams you can imagine. In every one of them, I was called to the desert, a place I had never been.

So I packed my meager belongings into a backpack and bedroll (total weight: 14 pounds), and stuck out my thumb on old Route 66. (This was 20 years ago. I wouldn’t recommend it now.)

Two days later, I found myself coming down from the New Mexico mountains into the Sonoran desert at sunrise. I was awed.

The land looked utterly familiar, yet the colors astonished me. At the time, I took my recognition of the place as evidence of reincarnation. Nowadays, I suspect that it looked familiar because like most boomer baby boys, I was raised on black and white westerns -- which also explains why the colors surprised me.

I was particularly fascinated by the saguaro -- the tall green cactus trees, often a century old, stubborn and ungainly, but with a fleeting and fragile flower.

Now, of course, I live midway between Sonoran desert and the Great Lakes. Family situations have called for me to head back to Illinois several times recently.

Now, it’s the old deciduous trees of my youth that startle me. “But there are so many TREES,” I said over and over to my family. Great gnarled trunks, silhouettes against the twilight. A rustle in the wind that you just don’t hear in Douglas County. There are woods in the world, places still and dank; shaded and holy.

Driving back to the browner, more sparse lands of Colorado, I found myself remembering all the time I had spent reading in trees as a child. I can remember losing my place in a book, just to watch the play of shadow leaves on the page. My secret dream as a librarian is to build libraries that make people feel just like that.

So that’s the inner significance to one librarian of Arbor Day. But some of you, I know, only concern yourselves with the bottom line of this important American tradition. So consider this passage from a publication called "Update Forestry," by Michigan State University:

“A tree is worth $196,250.00, according to Professor T.M. Das of the University of Calcutta. A tree living for 50 years will generate $31,250 worth of oxygen, provide $62,000 worth of air pollution control, control soil erosion and increase soil fertility to the tune of $31,250, recycle $37,500 worth of water and provide a home for animals worth $31,250. This figure does not include the value of the fruits, lumber or the beauty derived from the presence of trees. Just another sensible reason to take care of our trees and participate in Arbor Day planting programs locally.”

In short, trees are good for the soul, good for the ecology, and good for the economy.

This year, the Douglas County Arbor Day Committee has events planned not only on April 19, but on several other days this month. I understand that volunteers are still particularly needed for the “RePlumming Plum Creek” project (4/19/97, 9 a.m., call 892-NEWS for more info), and “ReCherrying Cherry Creek” on the same day, same time, same number.

Other contact numbers include: Don Walsh (840-9546) in the Parker area, Em Wilson (792-9734) in Lone Tree (they’ll be planting ONE tree -- isn’t that great?), Gordon Marsh at 841-2770 ext. 313 for a Ponderosa High School project, Jim Frankenfeld at 791-0430 in Highlands Ranch, Curt Sloan at 470-0140 in the Pinery, Shannon King at 660-1517 for Franktown, Curt Williams at 660-1052 in Castle Rock, and Patty Horan at 688-5242 for Castlewood Canyon.

Further, your gifts are both needed, and tax deductible. Mail them to DCLC/Arbor Day, PO Box 462, Castle Rock CO 80104.

Wednesday, April 2, 1997

April 2, 1997 - Library Website

Among my jobs is to serve as the library district's "web master." What does that mean? I get to decide how our World Wide Web "pages" will look, how they're organized, and generally, what kind of information or links the public will find there.

Our "home page" (whose location is http://douglas.lib.co.us) provides access to four broad kinds of information:

1. Library resources. The most significant of these is our computer catalog. This catalog contains information about virtually every item the library owns: every book, magazine, audiotape, videotape (a few of our pamphlets, microfilm listings, or reference folders are not included, but they were never included in the card catalog, either). Patrons who connect to our computer catalog from home can not only look up such materials, but also place reserves on them, and even direct us to send them to any of our libraries for pick-up.

Library resources also include our EBSCO databases, for which we pay an annual licensing fee. The EBSCO databases provide indexing, abstracts, and many full-text articles from 350 of the most popular periodicals.

These computer resources mean that for those patrons with home computers and modems, the library is open 24 hours a day -- handy when you've got a report due the next day.

2. Local links. I believe that the library district was the first publicly-funded web site in Douglas County. But I've tried to keep track of all the other ones: among them the Castle Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Town of Castle Rock, the Douglas County School District site, Douglas County, and the Sheriff's Department.

All of these sites, in turn, have been most cooperative about linking back to the library. It's my hope that once people stumble across any of the public web sites, they'll be able to move relatively easily to all of the others.

You can find our current list of links at http://douglas.lib.co.us/your_community/county_info/local_links.htm

3. Local information. This includes a good deal of information about the library: hours, locations and phone numbers, and some of our special services (the Local History Collection, and our Books By Mail program for Deckers' residents).

It also includes something I hadn't thought much about in the beginning: web publishing, not just pointing to information other's have created, but actually creating some ourselves. Our biggest such file is located at http://douglas.lib.co.us/your_community/county_info/community_guide/dcservcl.html (for Big Community Information Referral). It lists several hundred local social service, civic, and not-for-profit organizations serving Douglas County residents, all of which are updated at least annually by library staff and volunteers.

Finally, it includes the on-line newspapers editions developed by the Douglas County News-Press, and posted free of charge. These articles -- especially when fronted by our automated indexing software -- greatly facilitate the retrieval of local historical information. You can find the News-Press library site at http://douglas.lib.co.us/your_community/dcnparchives.htm.

4. Web search tools. Finally, despite all our local or contractually provided databases, we still may not provide what you're looking for. So we have provided a page from which you can search all the resources of the Internet. It's located at http://douglas.lib.co.us/e_reference/tools.html.

Finally, our web site provides for a new form of communication. Sure, you could always call me (668-8752). You could write me at 961 S. Plum Creek Blvd, Castle Rock CO 80104. But those of you who have e-mail understand that it is often much simpler to type up a quick electronic message while you're thinking about it, perhaps about one of these columns, or about a library policy, or about a problem you've had with our service.

Now, you can not only reach me at jaslarue@earthlink.net, but you can also communicate directly with any of the members of our Library Board of Trustees. You'll find their e-mail addresses at http://douglas.lib.co.us/your_community/how_help/board_trustees.html.

In April (at Philip S. Miller), and we hope in May or early June at Parker, we'll put be putting out our new, graphical workstations for public Internet access. Either then, or now (if you have access from work or home) look over some of these new web resources and let us know what you think of them.